September will be a crucial month in determining how Speaker Paul D. Ryan manages competing interests within the House Republican conference. It's an ongoing balancing act that is expected to become more delicate amid a government funding deadline and the culmination of an election cycle in which the GOP is trying to avoid big losses.
Ryan is nearing the end of his first year as speaker, a marker at which lawmakers and observers will start to more closely examine the Wisconsin Republican’s leadership accomplishments and style, and assess whether he is the best person to lead the fractious GOP conference going forward.
Before he reaches his first anniversary on Oct. 29, Ryan has a few obstacles to deal with that will help define his relationship with the most conservative members of his conference. That includes deciding how to fund the government into the next fiscal year, which begins Oct. 1, and how to address the House Freedom Caucus’s request for a vote on impeaching the IRS commissioner.
While the decisions are not Ryan’s alone to make — his spokeswoman says the GOP conference will continue to make decisions as a team — the results will certainly reflect his leadership and ability to help bridge differences within the conference.
Fall Forecast: The House Returns
Uniting the GOP conference has not proven to be an easy task. Ryan's colleagues pushed him to run for speaker because they believed he was the only Republican who was up to the job, but he's had some early failures, such as his inability to cobble together support for a budget resolution and, more recently, a counterterrorism and gun control package.
As the presidential election draws closer, politics will factor more heavily into the decisions. Ryan’s primary focus is ensuring Republicans keep control of the House without losing much of their 30-seat majority. That involves appealing to the conservative base, motivating loyal Republicans to come out and vote for their party’s candidates, as well as wooing — or at least not offending — independent and undecided voters.
Most of the GOP incumbents in danger of losing their seats represent swing districts. They tend to be more moderate and need bipartisan appeal to win elections. To help those members, Ryan may need to ignore certain requests from more conservative elements like the Freedom Caucus.
“It certainly seems like the default is always to protect the moderates,” said Dan Holler, a spokesman for Heritage Action.
The debate over impeaching IRS Commissioner John Koskinen is a good example. The conference’s more moderate members tend to believe that impeaching the commissioner over allegations that the agency targeted conservative political groups that applied for tax-exempt status is an extreme move. Leadership has avoided doing much on the issue, except relenting to Freedom Caucus demands for a hearing.
Before the House adjourned in July, the Freedom Caucus made moves to force a vote on an impeachment resolution and is planning to do so again in September if leadership doesn’t schedule a vote in committee or on the floor. Ryan has said the conference will discuss the issue when lawmakers return but he also indicated earlier this year that impeachment is not the appropriate recourse.
A federal appellate court ruling from August finding the IRS did target tea party groups and may still be doing so could help fuel the impeachment.
If Ryan continues to neglect conservatives' interests, it could come back to bite him if House Republicans lose seats in November. Democrats are currently expected to pick up between 10 and 15 House seats in November, according to The Rothenberg & Gonzales Political Report.
“The strategy that’s going on among the Freedom Caucus conservatives is they believe their influence will be even greater in the 115th [Congress] … that the polling suggests the Republicans will have a smaller majority,” said Kenneth Gold, director of the Government Affairs Institute at Georgetown University.
While the Freedom Caucus should remain at about 40 members and perhaps grow if three candidates its members are backing win in November, the group still is reeling from Kansas Republican Tim Huelskamp's primary loss.
"The establishment was against Congressman Huelskamp," said Freedom Caucus Chairman Jim Jordan, R-Ohio. "That was a problem and there will be a discussion about that" when members return to Washington, he added.
Even if the Freedom Caucus doesn't grow, a narrower GOP majority resulting from moderate losses would give conservatives more sway.
Such dynamics factor in the government funding debate. The expected result is a continuing resolution that would extend fiscal 2016 spending levels and policies into fiscal 2017.
Appropriators, defense hawks and Senate Democrats prefer a short-term CR that would run through mid-December, by which time they hope Congress could put together an omnibus appropriations measure, as it has done in recent years. But conservatives are pushing to punt funding through March 2017, after a new president is sworn in.
Holler said conservatives want to avoid deal-making in the lame-duck session because they have concerns with rushing through massive bills while members who’ve been voted out of office still having input on legislation.
Many Republicans also still harbor hard feelings about the omnibus deal that was negotiated last December, which excluded many of the provisions conservatives wanted. While many of them voted for last year’s omnibus in a gesture of goodwill toward Ryan at the beginning of his speakership, they’re unlikely to be as generous this time around.
“Even if Ryan agreed to [conservative] demands for a long-term CR, there’s no possibility a long-term CR would pass in the Senate and we’re back to the real possibility of a government shutdown,” Gold said.
That makes a continuing resolution that lasts into December a more likely outcome. And that wouldn’t necessarily be something conservatives would oppose. They could still leverage election results that increase their proportion of the 2017 Republican conference during the lame-duck, Gold said.
Whatever the decision, there will likely be pressure from some members to deal with the continuing resolution and other pressing legislative business quickly so they can cut the September session short and get back to their districts.
“Most of the members would rather be home campaigning,” Holler said. “There’s not a desire to have an active, controversial, contentious September of lawmaking.”